Dear Car Talk:
I recently began driving an all-electric car, thinking I was reducing the negative environmental impact of driving. A co-worker has confronted me by saying that I am actually doing more harm than good, due to the rare Earth metals needed for the batteries. He says, furthermore, that when the car has lived out its life, the disposal will be especially troublesome for the environment. What is your opinion? Did I make a mistake by going to an all-electric car? -- Paul
I think the mistake you made was listening to that co-worker, Paul. I believe his conclusion is pretty much all wrong.
Electric vehicles (EVs) do not have "zero impact" on the environment; there's no question about that. But they have less of an impact than gasoline-powered cars.
First of all, it's cleaner and more efficient to produce power at a central location (a power plant) than it is to produce power in everybody's individual cars.
It's also easier to clean up, maintain and monitor one smokestack (the power plant's) than it is to do those things for a million smokestacks (all of our tailpipes). And even if you're charging your car from the dirtiest power plant, running on 100 percent coal, electric-car expert (and, to be fair, advocate) Jim Motavalli says you'd still reduce climate emissions by 30 to 40 percent over individual gasoline-powered cars.
And, of course, not all of our power plants are run on coal: We have a mix of coal, natural gas, nuclear and, increasingly, wind and solar now. Plus, our power plants have slowly been getting cleaner. And if the whole electric grid continues to move toward cleaner fuels, that will only make the argument for electrification stronger.
As far as the rare Earth metals go, I'm sure there are some ugly things being done as companies dig lithium out of the ground in China, Chile and Australia. But what your friend failed to mention is that all of the batteries that are used in hybrids and EVs today are recycled when they reach the end of their lives.
Those components are still very valuable. So the manufacturer will give you a huge credit for returning the old battery pack when you buy a new one. And it will reuse everything it can.
Then, Paul, there are smaller environmental benefits, like not having someone's exhaust blowing into your passenger compartment while you sit behind him in traffic. And not breathing gasoline vapors at the pump every time you refuel.
So I think you are a net positive for the environment. Not to mention that you're paying a third of the price per mile for electricity that your buddies are paying for gas.
So we would encourage you to feel rightly smug about your electric-car purchase, Paul. Give it a shot.